ʔiiḥatisatḥ (Ehattesaht), located on the very west coast of Vancouver Island, is one of 11 communities that received funding through the first ever Indigenous Cultural Heritage Infrastructure Grant. With the funds, the community will utilize local skills and resources to construct a gathering space that will breathe life back into Ehattesaht traditions.
The space will involve a safe pathway in the village, a nawaayisim (wisdom bench), and an area where people can practice their culture, gather and speak their language.
The First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) received $4 million to support cultural heritage infrastructure projects across B.C., as a part of the province’s Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program (CERIP).
Karen Aird, from Saulteaux First Nation, is the heritage manager and acting CEO for FPCC, an Indigenous-led Crown corporation which provides grants and programs for Indigenous arts, cultural heritage and language among First Nations in B.C.
The cultural heritage infrastructure grant is a part of B.C.’s $10-billion COVID-19 response. While Aird says FPCC received over 104 applicants, the projects chosen were considered “shovel ready” under government criteria.
“That meant all of the documentation, they knew how to start a project, they had a really solid proposal and budget,” Aird explains. “They had any permits needed, so it was based on really strict criteria as well, looking at it under the lens of cultural heritage, Indigenous cultural heritage preservation and revitalization.”
The jury also considered whether the projects would be sustainable, if supplies could be reasonably secured, and if communities had the staff and capacity to do the work, Aird says.
‘This project is a part of community healing’
Ehattesaht is one of 14 tribes that make up the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation. Through the grant, Ehattesaht received $304,500 to construct nawaayisim, and an outdoor gathering space which will foster important Ehattesaht cultural practices and build community capacity in the process.
According to ḥiikuusinapšił, Victoria Wells, the Ehattesaht language revitalization director (to outside agencies, and “worker” in her home community), the space will be an extension of the work they’re doing in language.
“When I signed the proposal, I signed it as the director of language revitalization… to outside agencies, I add the M.Ed. at the end of my name, but at home, you don’t walk around with an M.Ed.,” ḥiikuusinapšił laughs. “People will say, ‘Did you get that from your grandma or not?”
When the heritage infrastructure grants became available, ḥiikuusinapšił says it looked like a natural fit.
“We have a way of our people in the past being able to sit, talk and imagine — not with an agenda — but with the idea of sitting together, talking together, imagining the future,” ḥiikuusinapšił says.
Ehattesaht Elder and Hereditary Chief ʔaniicn̓aas Tom Curlie spoke about this space, she says.
“We were told that nawaayisim is a bench, a physical bench in a specific location in a village, where people would sit,” ḥiikuusinapšił says. “They would put a stick in the sand, and talk until the shadow moved to a different place.”
The space will be more than a bench, or a gazebo, ḥiikuusinapšił explains, and the plans include safe pathway to the village, situated on the side of a mountain.
“We have one road, and it’s an active logging load, and other commercial activities,” she explains. “The kids use it to ride their bikes, the same road the logging trucks pass through. So we would have a safe passage, gathering areas for our people, but also safe pathways between various parts of the village.”
There are a number of canoes “by people who are now gone,” ḥiikuusinapšił says, which are growing back into the ground. She imagines using part of the funds to have those canoes honoured, to remember who carved them.
But the next steps require community consultation, she explains. For the grant proposal, the team had to include engineering drawings, but there has always been faith that the Ehattesaht community can design and build the space.
“We believe our own people have understanding about architecture, engineering, paving, design,” ḥiikuusinapšił says.
“This project is a part of community healing, language revitalization, cultural revitalization, as Nuu-chah-nulth like to say, Hishook-ish Tsawalk — everything is interconnected.”
The first phase of the project involves community consultation, and hopefully by the end of the summer, ḥiikuusinapšił says, most of the site prep will be done. They are also working with community on job readiness, as well as working with artists to pull wood resources from the territory.
“When we get to the point, we’re actually building a new longhouse,” ḥiikuusinapšił says. “We’re up-skilling people so they can prepare to help with that piece as well.”
ḥiikuusinapšił says Ehattesaht is “about two teeth away” from an addition to their reserve, which would open them up to additional funding for more buildings and houses, she explains.
“On the days when social housing was put in place, they were to meet the minimum needs of peoples, and there was no consideration of the design of cultural spaces, when they were in fact great institutes of knowledge,” ḥiikuusinapšił says.
“This structure represents a return to the use of those structures, because the physical space returns the practices that come along.”
ḥiikuusinapšił says the community expects to double their numbers of families living at home over the next ten years. This funding is one important step back and forward, at the same time.
Aird is excited about nawaayisim for Ehattesaht, and all of the projects that will be coming to life or built upon over the next three years with FPCC’s support. Aird’s background is in archeology, and she’s worked in heritage for over 30 years.
“They were outstanding proposals. We were blown away, and our jury had a really tough decision to make,” Aird says.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had this grant opportunity, and the demand definitely exceeded the funding availability, so I think it gives us a good opportunity to demonstrate the need for more funding like this, and perhaps changing the criteria so we can support communities that may not have the capacity to do this work right now.”
Other recipients of the grants will implement cultural centre upgrades, new and improved infrastructure, construction of a trade centre, traditional Bighouse restoration, construction of a traditional pithouse and more. The detailed list or projects can be found in the FPCC press release.
“I’m thrilled. I’m so excited,” Aird says. “I’m hopeful that soon we’re going to have more opportunities like this, especially with the implementation of UNDRIP, that Indigenous Peoples will be recognized as the rightful stewards of their own cultural heritage — we can have our own spaces to showcase our artifacts and our treasures.”